13 April, 2012
second of our blog series on health and safety, Philip Wilson looks
at the dangers of working with electricity on farms…
Statistics tell us that contact with electricity continues to be
one of the main causes of death to farmers and agricultural
contractors in the UK and that nearly two thirds of these
fatalities involve overhead power lines (OHPLs), according to the
Health and Safety Executive. In Cornwall, there were two related
fatalities last year and the HSE is now highlighting the issue when
undertaking their inspections, so the subject is very topical.
In the UK, overhead lines carry voltages ranging from 230
(domestic voltage) to 400,000 volts and even 230 volts can produce
10,000 times more current than is needed to kill someone.
Before I tackle some of the main things you can do to reduce the
risk of death or injury from electricity, it's worth highlighting
that there is a specific legal duty on you under the Electricity at
Work Regulations 1989 to take the right precautions.
The law clearly states that electrical equipment must be safe
and properly maintained and that isolating the supply to equipment
you are working on is recommended. The HSE says it's extremely
unlikely that working on live systems will be justified, even if
carried out by a competent person.
We recently had a presentation given to us by Dave Shepherd from
Safety Cornwall during the farm safety day at Duchy College Stoke
Climsland. I think everyone who listened to what Dave had to say
and got involved in the practical demonstrations was shocked at
just how easily an accident can happen.
I also met with Ian Davey, a farmer and Cornish Mutual Member
from South East Cornwall who was electrocuted with 11,000 volts
when his trailer tipped up and touched an OHPL. He was very lucky
considering he broke his arm and dislocated his shoulder - he
admits it could have been a lot worse.
Dave Shepherd gave some excellent advice to the groups that
attended and I thought it would be a good idea to share this in the
Firstly and perhaps most obviously, avoid contact with power
lines by keeping tall machinery or long equipment, such as
combines, sprayer booms, handlers, tipper vehicles, ladders and
irrigation pipes, away from them at all times. Electricity can jump
gaps and you don't even have to touch the line to get a shock.
Getting close can cause a flashover that may kill or seriously
Keep a safe clearance distance if you are building or stacking
items near power lines, never work on top of farm machinery if
you're under or near power lines and don't place ladders near
OHPLs. The HSE has different minimum ground clearance distances,
depending on the voltage - these range from 5.2 to 7 metres, so
check carefully first before doing any work.
It's always a good idea to have a map of the OHPLs that run
across your farmland, or indeed any land which you may be leasing -
you can get copies of these from your Distribution Network Operator
(DNO) i.e. Western Power Distribution (WPD). Make a note of where
they run and how high they are, so you can plan to work around
them. The HSE is now 'strongly advocating' to farmers that when
undertaking a field risk assessment prior to starting work, you
obtain an accurate measurement of the height of power lines in any
fields where high-reach work equipment is to be used or
operated. Make sure that contractors and workers also have
copies and keep the DNO's contact details in your vehicles or with
the equipment you're using.
Some other general pointers around electricity also include not
assuming that electrical equipment is dead, even if the wires have
fallen down or they appear broken. The same principle applies with
wires on wooden poles - lots of people think these are just
telephone wires and that's not always the case.
Things such as trees, string, ropes, suspension lines and water
can all conduct electricity and wellington boots, rubber-soled
shoes and gloves do not protect you. Electricity can also bypass
wood, plastic and rubber and still cause lethal shocks.
If you're involved in excavation work on the farm, remember to
keep well away from underground services, including cables. It is a
legal requirement to check for underground power cables before you
start any excavation work (as part of your risk assessment) and
it's always a good idea to contact the utility companies before you
start work to establish where they're located - and get
someone who is experienced to help you.
If the worst happens and someone does accidentally make contact
with an overhead or underground power line, disconnect the
power source. If you can't do that, don't touch the person except
with non-conducting items - never anything metallic.
Make contact with the DNO and get them to disconnect the power
supply straight away. To prepare for this possible emergency, put
the WPD number in your mobile phone now - 0800 365 900.
Do not attempt to dismount your vehicle until you have assurance
from WPD that the supply has been isolated. If you cannot
contact WPD and if, as a last resort, you have to leave your
vehicle, use the safe method of exit; with your feet
together, stand on the step facing outwards and then
jump away from the vehicle as far as
possible before 'bunny hopping' away from the
vehicle. Keep clear of the vehicle and warn others who may be
nearby. Don't touch any vehicle or machinery attached to it until
the DNO has confirmed the power is switched off. Remember, the
power can be switched back on at any time, without warning.
Finally, make sure you and your farm workers receive adequate
first aid training - you really never know when you might need it
and it could mean the difference between life and death.
We have only scratched the surface in this blog entry and the
HSE has a whole wealth of information on its website with plenty of
downloadable guides. This link should provide you with everything
you need when it comes to OHPLs and working safely around
For more information about our 'FarmSafe' campaign, visit